The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone shows what liberty can achieve

Maxwell Marlow

June 18, 2020

Police brutality, thanks to militarisation and excessive use of force against unarmed protestors, has pushed political entrepreneurs to create the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). The Seattle Police Department abandoned six blocks and it has since been peacefully occupied. In the midst of the fire and debris of police crackdowns, CHAZ has blossomed.

It incorporates philosophies of social justice, anarcho-communism, voluntarism and even Hoppean anarcho-capitalism at times. I write this neither to endorse nor condemn CHAZ, only to point out the lessons this embryonic experiment in political expedience has to offer.

CHAZ is reminiscent of the proletarian struggles of history. The communes of Paris have found themselves transported through time to Washington state’s capital. Few would have said at the start of this pandemic that Jean Valjean would have been strangely proud of the praxis of America’s left-libertarian groups.

Although we cannot hear the people sing, they are burning sage to clear the air of the putrid stench of tear gas, which is still used by police despite it being banned by the City Council. This is a strictly anti-authoritarian movement, based on solidarity, protest and the implementation of community-based liberation philosophy.

The “no cop co-op” still has governance infrastructure. Defunding the police’s budget and diverting resources into community education and public health have been the goals of the organisers.

It has a certain air of the great Enlightenment thinker Helvétius, who thought that man could be perfected through education, and thus would not require coercive governance of the sort that CHAZ so vociferously opposes.

CHAZ’s decision-making institutions are unknown. Our best guess is a system of anarcho-syndicalism, wherein all inhabitants are enfranchised automatically and must vote for a leader, whose decisions are then ratified by the commune’s electorate biweekly (to use “Dennis” from Monty Python’s Holy Grail as a citation).

CHAZ teaches us that there is more than one way to govern our communities effectively. Some of the ideas it espouses could be put to good use in communities across the world to decide on building projects, height restrictions and other local concerns.

Its economy is non-existent. Currently, it is running entirely on the fuel of charity and goodwill, but philanthropy an economy does not make. There has been some digging in the park to supply vegetables for the commune, but this will not suffice, especially considering the disproportionate veganism of its occupants.

They will require magnitudes of more space to grow food to sustain the community, which will need to expand exponentially if the CHAZ is to be a success. Their agricultural methods would make Ostrom and Monty Don shudder, a tragedy of the commons and of botany. If they wish to make their tokenistic gestures more feasible, they need professional advice on irrigation and mechanical agriculture, perhaps from Israel’s Kibbutz culture.

Perhaps hydroponics could save the CHAZ’s security, but this depends on whether utility companies are still willing to supply this insurgent political group. It teaches us the lesson of the importance of international trade. Our reliance is not a curse, as argued by autarkists, but a demonstration of our flourishing when we embrace Ricardian economics. CHAZ and Trump should both keep that in mind.

There have already been concerns about food and supply shortages. Conservative critics have invoked vivid memories of the disastrous shortages that have occurred anywhere the abhorrent ideology of communism has been attempted. The young, lower-middle-class occupants of the CHAZ are unlikely to have bulging savings accounts, which indeed is a criticism they level at the system from which they seek to diverge.

They must, therefore, produce goods or services to get some “foreign currency” reserves built up, maybe even commodifying entrance to the CHAZ. This would, however, undermine their position and the gusto of the movement.

Compromise, as neoliberals and libertarians know, is part and parcel of politics and success. Much like Trump and the police, who must now step back from brute force and take a more Peelite approach, CHAZ must compromise to thrive. There is no shame in that.

Notably, it has not commandeered private property, only the streets and park. It would like to over-rule the blocks in the city with rent controls, which would be an unmitigated disaster. But if it can come up with a novel system of accommodation disbursement which benefits all parties and maintains some market activity, then that is a cause for celebration.

Security has been addressed. America’s oft-mocked second amendment rights have proved a successful replacement for the police. Anarcho-capitalists have rejoiced as private security details, made up on interested protestors, have kept Proud Boys and militarised police forces away.

A threat of force has kept away force, something that is tacitly acknowledged by police whenever there is a protest in the US. The concept of justice is a larger and more complicated issue which will grow in urgency as CHAZ expands. But peace and enforcement of the “rules”, which seem to be implicitly agreed amongst participants, appear to be occurring spontaneously, which represents another triumph for liberty.

CHAZ presents a crisis for police departments and governance structures across the US, if not the west as a whole. It has reminded the state that it does not have a natural right to govern but one grounded on consent and moderation. It is a privilege to use force against one’s own citizens.

The moderating demands of accountability have not been met and there has been action to isolate their power away from those that feel most aggrieved. The state should look at this and think not who has created CHAZ, but why, and what it means for democratic governance in general.

Neoliberals and libertarians should wish CHAZ every success, as it demonstrates that peace remains attainable, even in times of such disquiet. If critics and protestors learn from our ideas, we will see greater success in a society of pluralism and equality.


Written by Maxwell Marlow

Maxwell Marlow is president of the LSE Hayek Society.


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